Nature-Nature and Human Nature
In descriptions of what a haiku is, there is usually the mention that it is a poem about nature. This idea seems so innocent and easily understood that one is almost incapable of comprehending the furious ink battles which have raged over this facet. In trying to draw a clear line between humanity and nature, the authorities have discovered that there is none. It is fairly obvious that trees, clouds and flowers are ‘nature’ and thus, apt subjects for haiku.
For the Japanese, with their built-in humility and inborn self-effacement, it was easy and comfortable for them to place the emphasis of the poem outside of themselves in the glories of nature. We all must face the idea that we as persons will die, but nature, because it is able to renew itself, is everlasting. Therefore, to place the emphasis of one’s poem within the larger picture of the on-going world of nature is to assure that the subject matter of the poem lives and remains viable for the reader even in the future.
But even for the Japanese – a very large portion of modern Japanese haiku do contain human activities and even feelings. For those writers without the classical sense of humility, it was hard to keep the happenings of humanity out of haiku. Today one can barely understand the furor that rose when Yamaguchi Seishi dared in 1933, to write a haiku with such a modern and un-nature image as a locomotive in it in spite of the sentiment that praises nature.
Some English writers, though they have more easily accepted the products of humanity into their haiku, still have a hard time accepting a haiku that mentions humans in it. These people seem to want to draw a line between nature and humankind as if we were not a part of nature, but something outside of it or on the opposite side of it. So ingrained is the idea that a haiku is a poem about nature alone that some magazines automatically and autocratically separate the poems according to whether a reference to humanity appears in it or not.
The reason for doing this is a mistaken belief that they are following a Japanese ideal. From somewhere they have learned about the Japanese genre called senryu – SEND-JEW or SEN-REE-YOU, and have the idea that senryu are satire about the foibles of human experience – which they are. What they forget is the fact that Japanese haiku also do have references to humanity in them. The thing they do not understand is that there is a difference in tone between senryu and haiku. Since judging something as abstract as ‘tone’ can never be completely agreed upon, and since English haiku have no other indication of being something else other than haiku by their form, some persons try to confuse the matter by clinging to a terminology that has no meaning for us.
These persons, who use the term senryu in conjunction with haiku, attempt to create a barrier between what they view as different kinds of haiku instead of accepting that a haiku can have as many ‘tones’ and ‘voices’ as there are writers. For a time, in English haiku history, it was thought that a senryu was a failed or inadequate haiku. Combined with this was the practice by some persons of labeling other authors’ work in a pejorative manner by calling it senryu.
In Japan, it is clear to anyone that a senryu is a haiku-looking verse that lacks a kigo or season word. Because the senryu grew out of the practice of the maekuzuki – a game of poetry in which bar patrons attempted to write a response link to a poet’s hokku based on vulgarity and saloon humor, the genre is yet today seen as being much less a high art than haiku. Haiku are signed with the author’s name; senryu are not – for obvious reasons.
Because, when haiku was brought to English, we were not given the guideline that haiku had to always have a seasonal reference, we considered that whatever was written in three lines was considered a haiku whether it contained one of the regulation season words or phrases or not. And because of English’s huge literary history of poetry from and about humanity, it was very hard for the non-Japanese to write without a focus on persons, their activities and the implements of their existence. Thus, from the beginning, many English haiku have focused on the actions of humans – sometimes to the exclusion of a mention of nature and still, the proper name for the work is haiku.
Using sensual images
Your five or six senses are your basic tools for writing haiku. Haiku should come from what you have experienced and not what you think. Haiku depend on words that create the images the reader can see in his or her mind’s eye. You might think that all words stand for something – and this is true – but many of our most-used words in poetry stand for ideas: wisdom, love, desire, fear, anger, longing, knowledge, beauty. These are also called abstractions because they are concepts – products of intelligence and not names of actual things one can verify with a sense.
Not only do haiku use mostly nouns to work with the names of things, it works best with what is lamely called the ‘thing-ness’ of things. This is a real abstraction! But what it means is: instead of presenting the idea of a thing, or using the concepts of what something means to us, the author simply presents the thing as it is. Seeing the world in a grain of sand is not in haiku territory. Seeing sand as sand is. Instead of using things to talk about ideas or fantasy or imagination, the writer just writes about the thing as it is.
An easy way to get to this point is to avoid using adjectives and adverbs. There is a proverb: “calling a spade a spade.” This works for haiku, also. Haiku do not tell the reader what to think but shows the things that will lead the reader to the path the author’s mind has traveled.
This does not mean that there are no abstractions in haiku. They do use the abstract of time: morning or evening; the abstract of space: near and far; the abstract of size or measurement: large or small and the abstract of memory or thinking. But any of these aspects should only constitute one-third – or one line, of the haiku. The other two-thirds of the haiku should be names or images of things the reader can see, hear, smell, taste, touch or perceive.
Simplicity of Language
With this goal of directness in haiku is included the practice of saying things simply. At various times in our poetical history, it has been fashionable to find tropes or figures of speech to make poetry more lyrical. Instead of using the common noun as name of thing, the poet uses a new appellation such as calling the ocean – “mother of us all” or writing of the wind as the “messenger of the gods.” As charming as this practice can be in small amounts, in large doses in poetry it can seem pompous and over-blown. By speaking simply, the reader is allowed to form his or her own associations, memories and ideas instead of being corralled into a narrow path someone else’s wit has made.
Personalization of things
In this same vein, it is said that haiku also avoids the use of the Western poetical device of personalizing non-human things. To say a brook ‘smiles’ would be seen as personifying a stream of water and therefore presenting the thing for more than what it is – just a stream of water.
This is a very tricky rule because we so easily accept that a brook runs, leaps and even has a mouth! Our language has been personifying things for so long it is practically impossible for us to rid ourselves of this concept. How easily we speak of the ‘leg of a chair’ or the ‘head of the bed’ so nouns, as well as verbs, can personify objects. How does one decide when the author has committed the sin of personification? It depends on language customs and personal vision. If the verbs are customarily shared by humanity and a thing, you as author cannot be accused of personification.
If, however, you make up a new way of speaking of a thing – ‘the sun eyes the earth’, the jolt of this creativity will interrupt the normal low-key delivery of haiku. You are no longer speaking of the thing as it is but as how it is perceived by your intelligence.
For the lyrical poet, trained and charmed by the creation of figures of speech haiku can either seem plain and painfully bare or delightfully simple and refreshing.
Apples, Apples and Haiku
In a country far away, the people developed, over a long period of time, two very different kinds of fruit. One they called (translated) apple-H and the other was named apple-S. Almost anyone in that land could easily tell the difference between the two fruits because they were grown in a different ways and thus tasted very differently.
The apples-H were tart and refreshing. They were first discovered growing in the orchards of the professional poets -- people who made their living writing poetry. Therefore the growers, and eventually even their products took on a religious atmosphere. Some of the growers were called priests and nuns out of respect for the quality of their apples-H. Still the apples-H tasted superbly to a large majority of the people who delighted in growing their own apples-H in their front yards with a degree of pride that was very charming.
The apples-S were (are you surprised?) very sweet-and-sour. The apple-S trees first sprang up wild by the bars in the red-light district of old Tokyo. Even the nickname for apples-S (River Willows) was an indirect reference to the geisha who, when politely referring to their trade, called it the one of "flowers and willows". Thus, the taste of these apples was not enjoyed by everyone, but mostly by people who liked to seem a bit naughty. For this reason, for many people, the name -- apples-S -- had an unfortunate connotation of shame belonging to 'lower classes', 'unprofessional' or 'lower people' that could never be lost. The apples-S were only grown in back yards so passers-by could not know the house-owner had a taste for such fruit.
However, when a foreigner looked at these two fruits they seemed very similar. Both were roundish, both had a warm, creamy ivory flesh, brown seeds and both were reddish on the outside. Only the very observant might discern faint, flat, brown circular spots on some of the fruit called apple-S. Some claimed these marks were only the result of the excess sweetness.
After contact with the outside world, and when people in other countries found out about these two kinds of apples, they too, wanted to not only eat and enjoy them, but to grow the apples themselves. So a few importers attempted to transplant some of the trees from the far country. In their eagerness to collect starts they cut off branches from both kinds of fruit. However, in packing up the assorted limbs they smashed them together so hard in the boxes that the bark of the twigs of apples-H was damaged, spontaneous grafts occurred and the apple-S genes were accidentally spliced in. By the time the transplanted trees had grown up so they were producing apples in their adopted land the mixed genes were manifesting apples that were truly neither apple-H nor apple-S. Out of the mixture came a new variety which could only be properly called apple-E because it was not the same as either of the previous apples but was very much itself containing the best of all the flavors.
However, as people learned more and more about apple agriculture, they begin to wonder if some of their apples-E, if they had faint brown spots on them, should be righteously called apples-S -- just to be 100% accurate. They were very unsure which apples should receive the hated 'S' added to their name, yet they insisted on knowing what was best.
Some people said, "Pooh, those apples with brown spots are rotten and should be thrown out! We don't like apples-S and we don't want any of our apples tasting like that!" Others asked why an apple-E with some spots should be called a rotten apple, when they all tasted so similar that one could not judge on taste alone. Still some people wanted to call the apples-E by the name apples-S but the people from the far country knew better -- that these apples-E were a new variety that were either apple-H or apple-S but was a happy combination of the two.
In the far country their trees continued to produce apples-H and apples-S but the people growing apples-E knew that their apples had the best of both species. All they had to do was to handle their apples-E more carefully so they didn't get bruised. This meant that they could no longer damage them by slinging them at each other over the fence with name-calling. In this way the apple growers began to treat their crops as gifts from nature with thanks giving to the other culture without worrying about spots or appellations! And their apples-E tasted even better - er, happily ever after.